Comic book fans may be familiar with the term “Women in Refrigerators.” It’s a distinction applied to stories that feature strong violence against female characters, usually used to add grief and trauma to a male superhero’s life. Famous examples include: Alexandre DeWitt, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s first girlfriend (whose brutal murder by being stuffed into an icebox gives this trope its name), Gwen Stacey (her death was never as important as how much it had hurt Peter Parker) and Barbara Gordon.
Babs’ treatment in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke has been a touchy subject for years. At the time, Moore did not envision a new role for the character (which she would eventually take on with The Oracle in Birds of Prey); his goal was to cripple Barbara and then tell a story about how it affected her father. It reduced her to an ornament that hung on the trees of more popular, important and (most importantly) male characters.
I bring this up because of two things that occur in this issue: the revelation of Barbara’s mysterious cure for paraplegia and the curb stomping of Batgirl.
Now, perhaps curb stomping is an inelegant choice of words, but Batgirl definitely gets beaten on pretty heavily this issue. Since she’s just resumed crime fighting, it makes sense that she would have some trouble getting back into things, and this definitely isn’t the first time we’ve seen her get overtaken, but something about this issue makes it feel much more savage. Ardian Syaf chooses several close up shots of Barbara getting hit in the face; just the amount of blood that is produced alone is particularly brutal.
If this book was written by a man, I’d certainly make a much bigger deal about it, but it really felt like the scene on the bridge in particular was drifting into Women in Refrigerators territory.
The other huge flaw in this book, the one that may likely overshadow the issue itself, is the way we find out about Barbara’s cure. After months of anticipation, having the reveal be so underwhelming and only touched upon briefly in a bit of throw-away monologue was very disappointing. I have to question Simone’s handling of the whole thing. Surely, if she wanted to avoid the story being dominated by that plot point, she could’ve just revealed it in the first issue and gotten it over with, but to refer to it several times and flirt with the reader’s imagination yet not deliver something satisfying is just odd.
It’s a shame, since the rest of the issue has a lot to sink your teeth in. There is some crossover with the story revolving around Bruce Wayne’s campaign to clean up Gotham City being told in the pages of Batman. It seems that this won’t just be a stunt to shove Batman into the book and that Simone has a plan for addressing this in a unique way. Also, Commissioner Gordon is looking into this Batgirl problem and a character that might have been forgotten from the first couple of issues returns as a sort of background threat.
The main villain, Gretel, offers a palpable physical threat, but her motivation is still a mystery. It is nice, though, to see Batgirl going against a female villain. Her rogues gallery should be predominantly made up of women, otherwise what makes it novel?
The cliff-hanger of last month is pushed aside to focus on the main plot. Ordinarily, this would upset me, but the new stuff is way more compelling than Babs’ mother coming back. At least for now; without a doubt, she’ll be returning to cause problems in the near future.
Batgirl has come to be defined by her paralysis. The way the mysterious solution was handled may indicate that Simone wants to move on with the character and leave all that behind, but it’s still a big part of everything Batgirl and could have handled differently. We can only speculate on whether or not a different approach would have been an improvement.
Don’t get me wrong: this is still a very good book that makes up for the missteps of last month’s issue. My pull-list has gradually been shrinking over the past few months, but I suspect Batgirl will remain for quite some time.